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University faculty, graduate admissions staff discuss transition to opt-in CR/NC grading system

Students applying to the University’s School of Law and Darden School of Business will not be penalized for taking classes CR/NC

Previously, students were required to obtain their instructor’s permission in order to take classes CR/NC.
Previously, students were required to obtain their instructor’s permission in order to take classes CR/NC.

The University’s decision to adopt Credit/No Credit as the default grading system this semester in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic allows students to choose whether or not to receive a letter grade until April 28. Previously, students were required to obtain their instructor’s permission in order to take classes CR/NC. 

The decision raised several questions regarding how classes that are graded CR/NC will be factored into admissions decisions at graduate schools, as well as how faculty will modify their coursework to match the default grading system. 

According to third-year College student Kiera Goddu, the University’s new grading system has created additional stress for students who wish to apply to graduate schools or lack the resources to do well in online classes.

“On one hand, you want to be able to count grades that will help you and some students may have been relying on performing well this semester to balance out previous grades,” Goddu said. “On the other, there is an equity issue here in that some students have the resources to continue getting good grades in online classes in the midst of an economic crisis, and some students simply do not.”

How University faculty are adjusting

In addition to the fact that classes are now online, faculty at the University must now adjust to a new reality — students no longer have to ask instructors for permission to take classes CR/NC.

In the meantime, the mechanism students will use in order to make a decision about their grades is still unclear.

“We’re still looking at this policy enactment to make sure it will work best for faculty and students and [are] working on the implementation structure,” said Wes Hester, the University’s director of media relations and deputy spokesperson, in an email to The Cavalier Daily. 

While the policy’s implementation is not yet finalized, University Provost Liz Magill said in a virtual town hall Thursday that the University has no intention to change the policy itself. 

“We deliberated as thoroughly as we could when we made the decision to go to a default credit/no credit for all classes with the option for students to choose at the end of the semester that they want to take a grade,” Magill said. “We’re actually getting closer to the end of the semester, and change has a cost. Everyone has adjusted to this or built their expectations around it.” 

For Kevin Smith, an assistant professor in the English department, this change does not pose a huge issue due to the unique way he determines end-of-semester grades in his first-year writing classes — specifications grading. In this system, the professor creates different bundles of tasks for each letter grade, and in order to determine the grade they want, students complete that work. The work that students do does not receive specific letter grades — instead, it either meets or does not meet specifications. 

Smith said that he uses this system because it ensures transparency and equity in that students understand exactly how to achieve the grade they desire and that their work is valued. He noted that he supports the University’s decision and thinks that specifications grading is especially adaptable to this change. 

“Students in [specifications] grading systems ideally have more control of their grade and awareness where they stand in the course than in traditional grading systems,” Smith said. “As a result, I think that students will be making thoroughly informed decisions when they opt for C/NC or for a grade.”

Catherine Brighton, a professor of education and associate dean of academic programs and student affairs in the Curry School of Education, said that the decision to go CR/NC has allowed Curry students and faculty to feel less anxiety about grading this semester. Brighton said that she doubts the switch to this system has changed the faculty’s approach to teaching and noted that professors are still trying to retain the overarching expectations of their courses.

Additionally, she said that this decision was essential in order to maintain equity for students who may not have access to resources such as high-speed, reliable internet in order to fully engage in their classes. 

“I think this provides an equitable way for students and faculty to take intellectual risks and adapt to these changing circumstances,” Brighton said.  

According to Amanda Crombie, the Frank Batten School of Leadership’s director of academics, the school’s leadership encourages all students in Batten to take advantage of the CR/NC option.

“[Ian Solomon, dean of the Batten School], many members of the faculty and our Academic Affairs team personally recommend that students take all their courses for credit this semester, so that they can concentrate on learning rather than grades in their new environment, and also so that they can pay adequate attention to their physical, emotional, and community health,” Crombie said.

Will Guilford, Assistant dean for undergraduate education and associate professor of biomedical engineering, said that the switch to CR/NC as the University’s default system will not affect the Engineering faculty’s approach to teaching.

Guillford said that he hopes the decision will relieve stress for engineering students and while grades are necessary for student accountability, they are not a motivator for what educators do. He also emphasized that it is important for students to remember that every institution of higher education is struggling through this pandemic. 

“Everyone understands that transcripts from this semester may look different,” Guillford said. “Trust that people understand this, and don’t worry overly about how they will view CR versus a letter grade.”

Additionally, Guillford said that he has heard that other universities are worried their students will stop trying if their institution implements a CR/NC system. He noted that he was not worried about this when it comes to students at the University. 

“I believe U.Va. students understand that learning, whether for a particular grade or not, is essential to their future,” Guillford said. “I expect to see every student fully engaged to the very end of the semester, no matter how the pandemic evolves.”

Graduate school admissions

The COVID-19 epidemic has disrupted graduate school admissions processes nationwide — the March and April MCATs have been canceled, the March LSAT has been scrapped and the GRE has moved to at-home testing in selected areas. Additionally, while the University has instituted an opt-out policy that allows students to choose whether or not to take their classes CR/NC, other universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University have instituted universal pass/fail systems that do not give students a choice — a distinction that will lead to wide variation among transcripts. 

The Cavalier Daily reached out to several graduate schools at the University in order to determine whether or not applicants would be penalized if they choose to take classes CR/NC this semester.

Despite the changing landscape of grading, the University’s School of Medicine said that they will review applications the same way they have done in the past. 

“We do not see this impacting applicants,” John Densmore, associate dean for admissions and student affairs, said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “There is plenty in the application outside of one semester that will allow us to make admissions decisions.”

Whitney Kestner, director of admissions at the Darden School of Business, noted that Darden will take the current situation into account when assessing this semester’s grades and will likely take a look at other factors such as other work history and leadership. 

“We recognize that grades are just one indicator of knowledge and determination, and an imperfect one under even the best circumstances,” Kestner said. “Our message for students considering a Darden MBA or the Future Year Scholars Program is one of flexibility in this unprecedented time.” 

In a similar tone of flexibility, the School of Law will not penalize students for taking classes CR/NC. 

“We understand that there are many reasons a student would want (or need) to choose the credit/no credit evaluation option, so we would not view that negatively in a law school application,” Senior Director of Admissions Ashley Merritt said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. 

These messages of flexibility in such an unprecedented time do not extend to graduate schools at other universities, however. For example, Harvard Medical School will only accept courses taken for CR/NC at universities that have adopted a universal pass/fail system — this excludes students at the University who may choose to opt-out of CR/NC. Similarly, the Law School at the University of Chicago is not changing their letter-grading policies for students to accommodate the COVID-19 pandemic or the university’s transition to remote learning.

With such varied systems, it is unclear how University students who apply to graduate programs outside of Charlottesville will be evaluated.